The Marshmallow Test is conceivably one of the most prominent developmental research studies on delay of gratification. In the late 1960s to early 70s, American Psychologist and Stanford University Professor, Dr. Walter Mischel, and his team sat children down at a table and placed a marshmallow (or other treat chosen by the child) in front of them. The researchers offered the children two options: a smaller reward (one marshmallow) now or a larger reward (two marshmallows) later if they can wait. The experimenters then left the room, leaving the child alone with the marshmallows.

As expected, some children popped the treat in their mouth as soon as the researcher left. Some were able to wait for a small amount of time before caving in. Others were able to hold out for periods of up to fifteen minutes for the researcher to return so they can have the larger reward.

This ability to have greater self-control, to resist temptation and delay immediate gratification in pursuit of a more valuable reward or a long-term goal – in other words, executive function (EF) skills – is predictive of a number of developmental outcomes, including peer relations, health, social-emotional coping skills, wealth, public safety (i.e. criminal convictions), social responsibility, academic competence, and career achievement.

Cohort Effects on Delay of Gratification

Researchers in this experiment were interested in whether children in today’s world would fare as well as children did in the original “Marshmallow Test” of the late 1960s. The common belief was that children now would be unable to wait as long as they did back in the day, preferring the immediate reward. The idea was that many children now have access to a range of technologies that may serve as instant entertainment, thus acting as immediate gratification. Some would argue that technology might make it harder for children to remain focused on less immediately rewarding, or “dull” tasks like homework or chores.

On the other hand, with new technology comes new ways of thinking. It may be the case that children growing up in this faster-paced world have more opportunity to exercise attention-control skills, contributing to increases in reasoning and symbolic thinking, which have been found to correlate with gains in IQ. Additionally, children now have greater access to high-quality preschool education than they did fifty years ago.

To investigate these issues, Dr. Stephanie Carlson, Reflection Sciences, Inc. Co-founder and Chief Science Officer, and her colleagues analyzed delay of gratification data collected in the 1960s, the 1980s, and the first decade of the 2000s.

Delay of Gratification: The Results

Contrary to the widely held belief that children in today’s world have less self-control than those who grew up in the 1960s or 1980s, results showed that children are becoming more successful at delaying gratification on the Marshmallow Test – the 2000s children were able to wait on average two minutes longer than children from the 1960s and one minute longer than those in the 1980s.

How can this be?

Researchers first ruled out the possibility that these effects were due to methodology, setting, geography, sampling variation, age, or sex of the children. They next considered the following possibilities:

  •  First, consider general intelligence. Coined the “Flynn Effect,” scores on IQ tests for children and adults have increased an average of 3 points each decade from 1909 to 2013. It may be possible that gains in IQ are correlated with gains seen in delay of gratification, resulting in longer wait times.
  • Next, focus on EF abilities. EFs are the key set of neurocognitive skills required for impulse control in children. In recent years, increases in public awareness of EF skills have made their way into schools, TV programs, books, parenting, and even policy. Similarly to delay of gratification, EF skills are proven to predict school readiness, academic achievement, social functioning, as well as mental and physical health. This shift in attention to cultivating EF skills in children may also contribute to gains in delay of gratification.

Though further research is needed, experts speculate that improvements in abstract thought, reasoning, and social awareness of EF skills in schools, media, and parenting, along with increases in preschool enrollment, may have been the driving force in generational improvements in wait time and delay of gratification.

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